“Puttin’ on for my state
Arkansas, we don’t play
Helltown, born and raised
I’m just tryna make a way …
They told me I had to leave Arkansas to be worth somethin’
Every time you put a mic in my face I’m gon’ say Arkansas.”
— “Make A Way,” Bankroll Freddie
Pandemic be damned, it’s been a big year for Bankroll Freddie. The Helena-West Helena native made his 2020 debut, “From Trap to Rap,” on Quality Control, a record label that’s credited with fostering the careers of heavy hitters Migos and Lil Yachty — and, more broadly — with cementing Atlanta’s position as the center of the hip-hop universe. Now, Freddie’s jointly signed to QC and Motown Records, and the 26-year-old’s latest, “Big Bank,” features the likes of Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz and Megan Thee Stallion. I caught up with Freddie from his home base in Little Rock Wednesday, and found on the other end of the phone line a charismatic, playful spirit — ever-ready to dote on his home state and seemingly unfractured by sudden fame or by his storied past, which is marked by brushes with death, high-speed police chases and a turbulent upbringing in Phillips County.
A co-worker and I are obsessed with your big-ass Arkansas ring.
Is it custom made? Who made it?
Yeah, it’s custom made. From Jewelry Unlimited. It’s a big jeweler. So, that’s where my QC family, they shop at, you know. So I had to go there and get right. It’s the biggest one! It’s the biggest ring in the game right now! [Laughs.]
Well, I love it, personally, being from here. I mean, you’ve said maybe some people assume you’re from Atlanta, and that ring is such a distinctive shape.
I most definitely let them know where I’m from, everywhere I go. And people be surprised I’m from Arkansas. A lot of people don’t know nothin’ about Arkansas. They think it’s just, like, a bunch of country and stuff like that. Just wouldn’t expect it. You know what I’m saying? Like, come up out of that.
So are you in Little Rock now?
Yeah, I’m in Little Rock, still. But I’m from Helena.
I want to ask you about Helena! I think that’s Cherry Street in the background of “Add It Up,” right?
Most definitely. Cherry Street. Legendary, legendary.
What was it like to shoot video in your hometown?
It was good, man. It’s always good to go home, where you came up from, you know. Where I come from, ain’t nobody made it outta my city. It’s a small town, population ‘bout 10,000 right now. It’s just a blessing to be one of the ones who make it up outta there.
I’ll confess I’ve been there mostly when the blues festival is going on every year, but I know it’s a different city when the crowds aren’t there.
Oh, most definitely. It goes crazy when the blues starts goin’ on. Thousands of people coming down for that.
You were in Helena all through childhood, and then you moved to Little Rock, then Conway, then back to Helena, right?
Do you still have family there?
Yeah, actually, my dad stays in Helena. And you know, my mother’s side of the family, they’re from Marianna, right up the street.
What do you eat when you come home?
When I’m coming through Marianna, I like to eat at Jones BBQ. You know, it’s been known since the 1920s, like that! Then in Helena I eat — what’s that place? PaTio, Rio Lindo. And we got old Southern cookin.’
Have relationships changed with your dad and your family now that things are picking up for you? Does it feel different?
Everything’s still the same for me, you know. Having money and being a known person, I’ve been that. I’ve been a popular person all my life. People be tellin’ me sometimes, like, “Man, whatcha doin’ in the hood? You’re bigger than that now,” you know? But it’s always good to go home and just enjoy the atmosphere and just be around your old friends.
So you’ve talked a little bit in interviews — and in your lyrics, like in “Last Real Trap Rapper” — that you had a following before you became a rapper. To me, it sounds like you’re telling the world that you didn’t get here without living the life. Like, that you were of the streets first, and a rapper second.
For sure. Most definitely. The thing about it — I just became a rapper. I never thought about rapping in my life. I never wanted to be a rapper. You know? God be having plans for you sometimes. It’s God’s plan. I never planned on it, but I’m pretty good at it.
How do you write? What’s your creative process look like?
Usually, when I write a song, I’m on the road. I drive a lot, back and forth from Atlanta. So from Arkansas to Atlanta, that’s an eight-hour drive. So I jump on the road, listen to a few beats, and by the time I get to Atlanta I probably have three, four songs, and I can record them as I go.
I wonder if you feel pressure to keep your old routines. Like, what parts of your daily routine are different now?
Well, now, I try to get my kids during the week — I got five kids — because I don’t have weekends, I’m booked up. So I go from the shows to home with my kids, and try to spend as much time with them as possible. That’s important.
What do your kids think about all this?
Well, most of my kids are still babies, you know, from two on down. But my oldest son, he’s four, and he knows every song, every video. He’s just amazed by it.
You mentioned God earlier. You know Helena in and out, and you grew up with a lot of upheaval there, and saw a lot of friends die. Do you think about the afterlife, heaven, any of that?
I don’t too much think on death. We livin.’
I understand that your dad was a pretty wild and often successful gambler, and you watched him win a lot of money. Do you think that made you want to take risks, or to set up something sure and secure?
I feel like my dad is the reason I am everything I am today. Dead serious. Watching his lifestyle — the stuff he used to do and the stuff he used to have — it made me want to have money. My dad, he was a — he was a big drug dealer, I ain’t gonna lie. He was a big gambler also. So he had nice things. He had nice cars. He had money, and it made me want to have money. So I went and got some money.
Speaking of, tell me about the “Pop It” video. What was it like working with Megan Thee Stallion?
Man, I love Meg, man. A person with her success, you would probably think she would be stuck-up. She’s so down to Earth and so humble. She’s cool. We just had a fun time. She’s cool as hell, man.
People have come to know the South as an epicenter for hip-hop. They know Atlanta. They know Houston. What’s different about your sound? Is it an Arkansas sound?
I feel like I rap like myself. We’re down South, and Helena is 30 minutes from Memphis. So I tell people that I’ve got a Memphis sound, an Arkansas sound. We’ve got our own type of sound. We sound like ourselves.
This last year for you has been so big, and it’s happened during the pandemic, when a lot of people weren’t going out and gathering in big crowds, or going to big venue shows. What kind of energy are you feeling going into the summer?
It’s gonna be a great year. It’s gonna be crazy. I went a whole year without dropping music, but I was still booked up the whole year.
Last question: I read an interview with XXL and they were asking you what people might be surprised to know about you, and you said that you can cook. What do you like to cook?
Oh, yeah, I’m a chef. My family, that’s what we do. We love to cook. I’m big on food. I can cook anything. Yesterday I made me a banana pudding. I was bored at the house and had a taste for some banana pudding, and I made me a homemade banana pudding. [Laughs.]
What are you cooking if you’re trying to show somebody, like, this is what my family does? What are you putting on the table?
Oh, yeah. I’m going always Southern. I’m going, like, sweet potato, collard greens. Good, homestyle fried chicken. Fish. Homemade macaroni and cheese. I’m goin’ that way. I’m goin’ deep. I’m gonna let ‘em know.